Jackson School of International Studies
University of Washington, Seattle Campus
Learning Through Role-Playing
Visitors to Kenneth Lawson's SIS 401 International Political Economy class might notice some unusual activity in the lecture hall. On one given day, a group of students walked around with a sign reading "Argentina," while another group shouted, "Is Ghana here?" When they found the groups they were seeking, students tried to broker deals, making statements like, "We'd like to commission a report that you submit to us about child labor..." or "Here's why you want to deal with us -- we're technically advanced but jobless..."
What was this class activity that had students talking? In addition to giving lectures and assigning readings, Lawson asked students to participate in a quarter-long role-playing simulation. Lawson
wanted to give students an opportunity to experience the dynamics of international politics and to engage them in solving real-world problems. Small groups of students played the role of nations and international organizations, identified and researched issues, proposed policy initiatives, and negotiated with other groups. A crucial component of this class activity was the use of the Web-based Catalyst tool VirtualCase.
VirtualCase Makes It Possible
In order to successfully carry out this simulation of world politics, Lawson wanted to provide student with a way to share information, and to engage in strategizing, negotiating, and lobbying outside of class time. These needs were met with VirtualCase, a Catalyst Web Tool that facilitates collaborative learning.
Setting up the simulation in VirtualCase was relatively simple. Lawson used VirtualCase to provide a description of the initial scenario, and divided the class into 32 teams, each representing a nation or organization. Each team was asked to do background research and complete a fact sheet that described the group they represented. These fact sheets were shared with other teams in the class.
Students Become Immersed in their Roles
Although Lawson had hoped that the simulations would be a good learning experience, he did not anticipate the level of engagement demonstrated by students in the class. Students took their roles seriously, lobbying (and at times pressuring) other groups to adopt their proposals, conducting espionage, and waging disinformation campaigns via VirtualCase. Some groups came up with the idea of posting realistic press releases to advance their agendas. Students talked about being "addicted" to the simulation. As students became immersed in their roles, they learned about the difficulties of negotiating with groups that had interests different from their own.
Using VirtualCase helped students to engage in their roles in ways more difficult with face-to-face communication. Students found it easier to stay in character when communicating via VirtualCase, and that using the tool encouraged them to be more professional and diplomatic.
Both Lawson and the students were pleased with the success of the simulation. Participating in the simulation gave students an opportunity to conduct research about issues of their own choosing and to apply theories they were discussing in class. In addition to learning about specific nations, organizations, and policy issues, students learned about the political process by using VirtualCase to work closely with the students on their team and to interact with the more than 100 students in the class.by Gina Cherry, January 2003